ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Illinois -- You’d never guess it looking at him, but Chris Block is 52 years old now, which means he’s spent more well over half his life as a trainer of Thoroughbred racehorses.
Block had his first starter as a trainer in 1989, a mere babe in arms at 23.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” he said. “I was at the training center in [Lexington] Kentucky with six 2-year-olds for my mom and dad.”
It was in 1991 that Block first made his way to Arlington, the track where he hung around as a kid with his dad, David, who owned horses that raced on the Chicago circuit. That fact didn’t get Block far with Arlington racing secretary Frank Gabriel.
“I had to work my way into getting stalls. I was a new face and Frank, he wasn’t the easiest guy to get to know right away. I was fresh and new to the scene, and that was back when the backside was full. There wasn’t a lot of room for new people to come in. I remember finally getting four stalls out in the receiving barn.”
Twenty-eight years on, Block is more than a little established at one of the flagship racetracks of the Midwest. When Embarrassing crossed the finish three lengths best June 27 in the Mike Spellman Memorial Stakes it marked Block’s 61st stakes winner at Arlington. The trainer Harry Trotsek won 60 Arlington stakes but now Block has saddled more Arlington stakes-winners than any trainer.
Embarrassing was a fitting horse to hit the milestone. Not only is she a Team Block family homebred, but the Blocks bred her sire, Fort Prado, who was probably the best horse Chris Block has trained.
“I have a lot of favorite horses I’ve trained over the years, but everyone knows how fond I was of Fort Prado,” said Block.
Embarrassing is out of Rally Catcher, who was bred and owned by Team Block and trained by Chris, and Rally Catcher was produced by Line Shot, also bred and owned by the Blocks and trained by Chris.
“A third-generation homebred, that was probably the most gratifying part of the whole situation,” Block said. “I owe a lot to my parents.”
And the Blocks, among the leading owners and breeders in Illinois for a couple decades now, owe a lot to their son. Embarrassing, for instance, made steady progress last year as a 3-year-old and has improved again through her 2019 campaign, running the best race of her career to capture the Spellman.
“A lot of these stakes win, like with Embarrassing, were Illinois-breds in Illinois-bred competition, but I got no problem with that,” said Block. “I’m proud of that, actually. My dad was here for it, my son was here. It was great to experience that with them. That was really special, having it all come together.”
Three generations of Blocks celebrating a third-generation Block stakes-winner.
Hazelton, once a Chicago kingpin trainer, passes away at 88
If they call you “King” – and they mean it -- you must be pretty good.
Ask older horse people what they thought of trainer Richard Hazelton’s horsemanship and try to find anyone familiar with his work who’ll say he wasn’t more than pretty good.
“A great trainer,” said trainer Hugh Robertson. “Deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.”
A lot of folks believe Richard Hazelton should be enshrined in racing’s Hall of Fame, but Hazelton didn’t make it during his lifetime. Hazelton, 88, passed away July 30 in Southern California after suffering a stroke. Hazelton’s physical health and mental acuity had been on the wane for years, but he started horses at Arlington as recently as 2011.
Yet it was the 1970s and 1980s that were Hazelton’s heyday in Chicago, where he once was the leading trainer by wins at Arlington and dominated proceedings at the defunct Sportsman’s Park. Hazleton, son of a trainer, was born and raised in Arizona and got started as a jockey there in the Southwest U.S. and Mexico while still early in his teenage years. If he was skilled on horse-back he had an even better feel for how to train a steed, and 17 straight training titles at Sportsman’s, between 1971 and 1987, will attest to his skill.
Hazelton once ranked fourth in all-time North American training wins though his career total of 4,745 now is the 10th-highest total ever.
“‘Great’ is not a good enough adjective for Richard as a horseman: King Richard was an accurate description of him,” said Hall of Fame trainer, Steve Asmussen, who for a time lived with the Hazeltons near Sportsman’s when he was getting started in his own training career.
Indeed, the Chicago racing press especially referred to Hazelton as King Richard, though Hazelton, reserved and private, eschewed the limelight. Neil Milbert, former turf writer for the Chicago Tribune, tells of chasing Hazelton through the Sportsman’s grandstand after his horses swept the top three placings in the 1984 National Jockey Club Handicap.
“I can’t talk,” Hazelton said. “My best chicken is fighting, and I have to catch a plane.”
Cock fighting ranked a close second behind horses in Hazelton’s passions, and Hazelton, who was married several times and had wild days as a young man, might have felt most at ease around animals.
“I think it was safe to say Richard did horses better than people,” said Asmussen.
Still, Hazelton was as liked as he was admired on the backstretches of many tracks.
“I think everybody loved Richard,” Robertson said.
No services are scheduled for Hazleton, according his son, Scott, a well-known television acing analyst, but a memorial will be held during the Breeders’ Cup this fall at Santa Anita.
Robertson stable stars coming around
It’s August now and things are heating up in the Arlington barn of trainer Hugh Robertson. Hotshot Anna is entered and Wynn Time, the way he’s working, can’t be all that far from a race.
Hotshot Anna, the best synthetic-surface female sprinter in North America last year, fractured her withers in a freak accident over the winter in New Orleans and returned to action June 29 at Arlington in the Chicago Handicap. It was a race Hotshot Anna had won with ease a year ago, but after saddling his horse (yes, she’s his – Robertson owns and trains) and heading out of the paddock, Robertson glanced at the odds board, shook his head, and muttered, “They’ve made her 3-5.” Where the betting public saw an unstoppable force, Robertson saw a rusty mare who he thought would need a race, and as typically is the case, the insider knew better than the outsider. Hotshot Anna ran fine but finished second, beaten by Illinois-bred My Mertie.
Hotshot Anna has come back to work sharply, Robertson said, but her start Saturday in a turf-sprint allowance race is merely a means to an end. The end is the $400,000 Presque Isle Downs Masters in September, a race Hotshot Anna won easily in 2018, with an August start there in the Satin and Lace Stakes.
Meanwhile, Robertson isn’t sure where Wynn Time will start, but he likes what he’s been seeing in the morning from one of the best sprinters in the Midwest. Wynn Time was bred and is owned by Robertson’s longtime client John Mentz but is by Robertson’s Illinois stallion, Three Hour Nap. Illinois-bred Wynn Time sports a sterling record of 8-2-1 from 11 starts and went three for three, all wins in stakes, during his run at the Fair Grounds meeting this winter. Wynn Time runs hard and isn’t the easiest horse to keep right, but when he’s good, he’s good, and expect him to come back running when Robertson does find a spot.